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Students cross King's College Road, at the University of Toronto, in a Nov. 2, 2015, file photo. Edward Iacobucci sent an apology for the content of the assignment to all first-year law students last week.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The dean of the University of Toronto law school has apologized for a class assignment that he said relied on racial stereotypes about Indigenous people.

Some students in first-year law objected last week after being asked to consider a hypothetical scenario in which Indigenous parents, struggling with drug and alcohol issues, had placed their three children in care. A non-Indigenous family looked after the children for two years and was prepared to adopt them.

But the father, who had stopped drinking and remade his life, wanted to maintain access to the children. The students were asked to write a memo about the case, taking into account a 2017 Ontario law that gives priority to maintaining familial and cultural links for Indigenous children.

Edward Iacobucci sent an apology for the content of the assignment to all first-year law students last week. The dean wrote that the hypothetical scenario “included several troubling stereotypes about Indigenous people.”

“I apologize whole-heartedly for the offence this assignment has understandably caused, especially to our First Nations and Métis students,” Mr. Iacobucci wrote. “The faculty will consider means that we can adopt going forward to seek to ensure that something like this does not happen again.”

No students would speak to The Globe on the record, but, in addition to concerns about the impact of stereotypes, some students said they did not feel properly supported in having to read upsetting details in real-life case law relating to the hypothetical case.

Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and a leading advocate for Indigenous children in the child welfare system, reviewed the assigned scenario and said on its face she found nothing problematic.

“Frankly, if students don’t learn about how to respond to these cases in university, I would be concerned about their capacity to do so when they graduate from a school of law,” Ms. Blackstock said.

“The reality is that First Nations kids are overrepresented among children in child welfare and that the leading drivers of it are poverty, poor housing and substance misuse linked to multigenerational trauma arising from colonialism writ large and residential schools in particular,” said Ms. Blackstock, who is also a professor of social work at McGill University.

More than half the children in foster care in Canada are Indigenous, even though they make up only a little more than 7.5 per cent of the youth population. Governments have wrestled with how to address the issue. A lot of attention has been paid to how child welfare agencies can best ensure a connection between children and their cultural community. Cases dealing with such concerns often end up in court.

Mr. Iacobucci declined an interview request, saying he was unavailable.

In an e-mailed statement, the law school said it had asked its committee on truth and reconciliation to review policies and procedures “to ensure that while we do not shy away from discussing difficult issues, we do so while avoiding unnecessary and offensive stereotypes.”

The assignment, despite the controversy it created, has not been withdrawn. Students are still offered the chance to complete it as it was first presented. They can also complete another assignment that will be due later.

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